Blyth Spartans 4 Skelmersdale United 0 (18th March 2017)
I am well aware that travelling around the country to watch semi-professional football matches between two teams I don’t support in any way, is a little bit nuts, but when you see a sign saying “A1 Newcastle and The South, you do start to question what on earth you are doing. In fact, in the Blyth supporters’ bar, with the TV showing Scotland v Italy in the Six Nations, I realised it would be possible after the match to drive to Edinburgh, have some dinner, then drive back to Blyth, quicker than I’d be able to get home after the match.
To go this far, further than I’d ever driven, or been driven, before (for any reason, not just football) it’d need to be somewhere a little out of the ordinary, be a decent ground, and be a decent game. Thankfully this ticked all the boxes.
For a start, Blyth Spartans are one of those famous giant-killing non-league clubs, including a run to the 5th round in 1978, where a replay against Wrexham was watched by over 42000 when switched to St James’ Park. And how can you not like a team called “Spartans”? I was even taken in enough to make a rare souvenir purchase of a Blyth Spartans key ring, to replace the Bohemians 1905 one I have, which is starting to fall apart.
Sadly, a five and half hour drive doesn’t put in you in the perfect mood for going exploring, so my knowledge of Blyth is limited to the residential roads around Blyth’s Croft Park, but that’ll do as Blyth Spartans felt like a real community club. Rarely do you see non-league fans wearing the club colours as much as here, with green and white splashes everywhere. Even a lad on the terraces drinking from a can of 7-Up almost looked to have done so because the can was green.
The place had a decent amount of terracing too. Both ends looked new identical covered terraces, designed by someone who’d actually stood on terracing before, who knew the importance of steps being high enough to offer a view over the person in front, and set back from the goal enough that people at the front won’t block the view of the goal. All too often with modern terracing you feel it’s been designed by someone who’s about 6’8″, who has never experienced having the back of someone’s head in their line of vision.
An older terrace filled half of one side, pretty deep, but no crush barriers, with many cans of green paint splashed out to add more club identity. High concrete walls at either side weren’t exactly welcome unless you had x-ray vision, or didn’t care about seeing corners of the pitch, but with Croft Park holding 4400, crowds would need to ride a fair bit before it’d be an issue.
The main stand opposite dates from the 70s, with its roof (green, obviously) extending out right to the front without a pillar in sight – a rare luxury at this level.
Fans would no doubt appreciate the unimpeded view, as Blyth are having one of the best seasons in years, top of the Northern Premier League, ten points clear, and looking very good for the title and promotion. Visitors Skelmersdale, in stark contrast, are having a nightmare season, arriving 20 points adrift of safety with just nine games left, hindered further by a horrific goal difference of -55. Maybe their one hope for the game would be that Blyth, with one eye on a match away at 2nd place Nantwich on Tuesday, might take it easy.
They didn’t. In fact Blyth took to the field looking like they wanted to get the game put to bed as early as possible, and Skelmersdale knew they were in for a day akin to manning the pumps on a sinking ship. With Alun Armstrong coaching Blyth to play in an entertaining style, with a flair rarely seen at this level, it was always going to be a matter of when, rather than if, as far as the scoring went.
It took a while, surprisingly. Blyth had the ball in the net fairly early on, heading in from a free kick, but that was ruled out for offside, and the opener didn’t come, amazingly, until the 36th minute. Skelmersdale’s busy keeper could do little when Blyth got to the byline and zipped a low cross in for a tap-in.
Just before that, Skelmersdale had actually had a chance to take the lead. A cross picked out a player at the far post, but with it being so long since he’d been in position to attempt a shot at goal, he’d seeming forgotten what to do, and a clear back-post header chance bounced of his head with the finesse of a man wearing a diving helmet.
With their resistance broken, Skelmersdale conceded a second just two minutes later. A chase between attacker and keeper at the edge of the box was won by the Blyth attacker, but he was forced a little wide, so rather than try to score himself, he cut the ball back. The keeper got a foot the resulting shot, but it wasn’t enough to prevent it going in, and make sure the result was never in doubt. It was a little harsh on the Skelmersdale keeper who, despite a couple of kicks that had found the green of the main stand roof rather than the green of the pitch, had done as much as anyone to keep the scores level for so long.
While Blyth were still clearly on top, there was definitely a sense of the table-toppers easing off in the second half. A win at Nantwich on Tuesday wouldn’t clinch promotion, but it would put the finishing tape in sight, so no point taking unnecessary risks.
Not that they completely slacked off, especially after adding an overdue third 20 minutes into the half, heading in at the back post from a corner. This wasn’t even supposed to be that good a performance from Blyth, but it was clear just how much this team enjoys playing and enjoys the style of football they play, and with a little more composure, this could have been a big score.
The biggest example of such a lapse in composure was with the score at three nil. In a move similar to the one that led to the first goal, a ball across the six yard box from the byline was met about three yards out, directly in front of an open goal. The crowd numbered 667 – the fax number of the beast – and I think all of them are still struggling for an explanation of how the Blyth player managed to play the ball into the arms of the stranded keeper, rather than into the net.
There was still time for a 4th to be bundled in, to give the scoreline a more realistic reflection of how the day had gone, and to send everyone, with the exception of those connected to Skelmersdale, home very happy. Just as well really, as some of those going home had rather longer journeys than most.